Before the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer was already writing poetry that connected the great traditions of classical and continental literature to new readers in English. From the beginning, his poetry was humorous, experimental, and even avant-garde. He was interested in dream visions, love lyrics, political critique, allegories, and heroic and romantic stories from ancient Greece and Rome. We will begin with his short, quirky, imaginative dream poems (the Book of the Duchess, the House of Fame, and the Parliament of Fowls), populated by talking animals, ice palaces, and bereaved knights. The centerpiece of the course will be the incomparable romance Troilus and Criseyde, a love poem set in the doomed city of Troy; by turns funny and heartbreaking, it lays bare the tragic impact of military and political concerns upon the worlds of love and private fulfillment. We will finish with the Legend of Good Women, an experimental story collection exploring female experience assigned to Chaucer (or so he claims) as penance for the crime of writing Troilus and Criseyde.
No prior knowledge of Chaucer’s Middle English is expected or required, since part of the purpose of the course will be learning the language with enough fluency to appreciate the beauty and depth of Chaucer’s poetry in its original state.
Several short close readings, a class presentation, and a longer essay (10 pages).